VALDOSTA -- Valdosta can now boast it has something that no other city in Georgia has, including Atlanta -- a Whataburger restaurant.

A second location is opening in Thomasville in two weeks, but for now, our South Georgia city has the state's first and only Whataburger in the chain of national restaurants.

If you've missed the distinctive bright orange and white striped roof of the eatery at 1701 North Ashley Street, you couldn't have missed the giant inflatable hamburger perched in front of the restaurant this week.

Hugh Dobson, the son of Whataburger founder Harmon Dobson, visited Valdosta this week, along with W. Partners Limited franchise partner Chris Murdock, owner of the local restaurant, to celebrate its grand opening with giveaways, door prizes and a check presentation to Habitat for Humanity.

Murdock and his partners purchased an existing franchise in Tallahassee with four restaurants that are decades old and decided to build additional units in North Florida and South Georgia, selecting Valdosta as the company's first site in the state.

"This is a great location and we are thrilled to be here. Everyone is so nice and they like what we're doing," said Murdock. "Valdosta is going to be a good market for us."

The location on North Ashley Street is the first for Whataburger in the city, with two more planned for Valdosta and a total of 12 more planned in the region over the next 18 months. The franchise's next restaurant will open in Thomasville in two weeks, with one planned for Bainbridge and at least three more planned for Tallahassee.

Murdock described the restaurant as a combination fast food/casual dining, with the oversized hamburgers cooked to order. "We don't put it on the grill until the customer orders it," he said.

Servers work the dining room, offering customers everything from ketchup to peppermints. Whataburger is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering breakfast from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m., but burgers and other menu items are available all the time. "If a customer wants a hamburger at 8 a.m., we make it for them," said Murdock.

With about 40 employees per location, Whataburger stands apart from other businesses by offering bonuses from management down to the lowest paid employee on the crew. Murdock said higher wages and higher standards work together, and the company's philosophy is that all employees should share in the success, not just a select few. The chain also has a long standing policy of community sponsorship and donations.

The national chain was founded in 1950 in Corpus Christi, Texas by the late Harmon Dobson. Whataburger's headquarters are located there and the Dobson family still owns the company, which has 374 restaurants of its own in addition to more than 250 franchises.

Hugh Dobson, the founder's son, said the family is very involved in all aspects of the business, which he learned by traveling with his father across Texas, scouting locations. "He knew we couldn't operate them all by ourselves, so he would license and train someone in the business and even help finance them."

Dobson's mother, Grace, stepped in to run the company when her husband, who was also a bush pilot, died in an airplane crash in 1967. The family matriarch kept the business going and has gradually handed the reins over to sons Hugh and Tom, as well as her daughter, Lynne.

The company has expanded over the years from its base in Texas to nine other states, and has had locations in Florida since the mid-1950s. Dobson said future plans call for expansion along the Interstate 10 corridor, with 35 to 40 new restaurants opening each year.

The Whataburger itself has remained virtually unchanged over the years, still known for its size and freshness, and the company itself has also remained unchanged, with its commitment to family and community.

What a concept.

To contact Business Editor Kay Harris, please call 244-3400, ext. 280.

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